Memories of Mike Modano

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Modano4.jpgI’m not going to do an exact retrospective on Mike Modano’s great
career, since we’re not even certain he’s retiring. If and when he
announces his retirement this summer, then we’ll take a look at his
great numbers and career accomplishments. For now, I’m just going to
talk about Mike Modano and my memories of the best player in Stars
franchise history as he plays what is likely his final home game tonight
against the Anaheim Ducks.

I grew up a Dallas Stars fan, when my family and I worked as
volunteers at Reunion Arena in the early 1990’s. It was incredible for
me to be able to be so close to the players and the behind the scenes
workings of a hockey game, especially since many times we covered the
entrance where the players would enter before the games. Shane Churla,
Kevin Hatcher, Dave Gagner, Grant Ledyard, Todd Harvey — all players
that I was able to get to know off the ice. Mike Modano? Well, he was
this mystical figure that everyone was crazy about, and when he
acknowledged you with “hi”, a pat on the head or a hand shake it was
just an incredible feeling.

Of course, it’s the memories of Modano
on the ice that stand out to me. It’s tough to pinpoint very specific
moments without looking them up; instead, it’s a mashup of nearly 20
years of memories that leave me with just an overall feeling of greatness and the feeling of watching a legend play night in and night out.

Modano2.jpgThe
sight of Modano flying effortless across the ice from one end to the
other, that Stars jersey flapping in the wind, is the image that will
always be in my head when thinking of Modano. I don’t know if there’s
any other player in the NHL that was able to be so much faster than
those around him without looking like he was skating that much harder.

His
ability to bury a one timer from anywhere on the ice. It’s not exactly
at the level that Brett Hull reached in his career, but that was easily
Modano’s best asset. That smooth, easy and extremely powerful stroke
that was deadly accurate is a shot that he still uses to this day, and
every time he finds some way to score on a hard shot from a bad angle it
brings chills to my skin.

I’ll also never forget Modano’s
backhand shot, an art that seems to be lost these days and one that
Modano used to score with from incredible angles. I’ll never forget
seeing Modano score from near the blue line on an incredibly accurate
backhand shot, that painted the upper corner of the net. I don’t think
I’ve ever seen a shot quite like that.

His offense and his speed
will always be what Modano is known for, but it’s his selflessness and
his team-first attitude are what I’ll remember most. Mike Modano was
drafted by the Minnesota North Stars for his incredible offensive
ability, yet after the team moved to Dallas and hired Ken Hitchcock as
coach the franchise shifted philosophies. The Stars became a defensive
team, and asked Modano to take on a more defensive-minded approach. Not
only did he embrace the new role but he became perhaps the best wo-way
player in the NHL.

Later in his career, he was asked to become a
checking line center as his offensive skills and speed declined and
fully embraced that role as well. He had the option of leaving Dallas
for a more lucrative contract a few years back, but instead took a bit
of a discount to stay with the team he’s always played for. The
incredible line of Brett Hull, Mike Modano and Jere Lehtinen will go
down as the best line the Stars have ever and likely ever will put on
the ice. Modano’s playmaking ability perfectly matched with Hull’s
scoring tough, and Lehtinen rounded it all off with some incredible
defensive prowess.

I’ll also never forget seeing Mike Modano slam
into the boards behind the net after Ruslan Sulei gave him a nice push
in the back. He slammed head first into the boards, a sight that
immediately looked as though Modano had broken his neck. It’s perhaps
the most gruesome play I had ever seen in hockey, and seeing Modano lie
motionless on the ice as he was strapped into a stretcher made everyone
immediately question what life would be like without him on the team.
There were tears in the eyes of every Stars fan that night.

It’s
tough to imagine the Dallas Stars taking the ice without Mike Modano on
the team. He’s been the face of the franchise for so long, and was the
perfect player for the team to have to be able to market the team in
Dallas. He helped make hockey into a incredibly popular sport in North
Texas and I’m still struggling to think of him not playing with a Stars
jersey on his back.

He may come back next season, but I doubt he
does it with any team other than the Dallas Stars. He’s passed up
numerous opportunities to be traded to much better teams contending for
the Stanley Cup, and he’s decided to stay in Dallas even through these
tough seasons of late. He is and forever will be a Dallas Star, and if
he does retire he will instantly be welcomed to be a member of the front
office. He may be part of an ownership group that purchases the
franchise but if not, he’ll be associated with the team in some
important capacity as soon as he retires.

Modano3.jpg

If this is indeed your
final home game in Dallas, Mike, then we bid you a warm and teary-eyed
adieu.

NHL Playoff Race: The teams still in it and the teams that are out of it

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

With only about one quarter of the 2017-18 NHL regular season remaining the league’s playoff race is starting to get a little clearer.

Let’s take a look at where things stand as of Saturday afternoon and who should be in, who should be out, and who is still very much on the bubble.

Eastern Conference

Who should be comfortable: Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto, Washington, Pittsburgh, probably Philadelphia

Who is on the bubble: New Jersey, New York Islanders, Columbus, Carolina.

Two of those four will get in.

Who is probably out of it: New York Rangers, Florida, Detroit, Montreal, Ottawa, Buffalo.

Analysis: The Three playoff teams in the Atlantic Division are pretty much set in stone as Toronto, the third place team, has a 19-point lead over the fourth-place Florida Panthers. It is the most top-heavy division in the league. The only thing left to be decided is what order those top three teams finish in, especially when it comes to Tampa Bay and Boston. Entering play on Saturday the Lightning have a three-point lead over the Bruins, but Boston still has three games in hand.

Over in the Metro the top-three spots belong to Washington and Pittsburgh with Philadelphia right on their tails. All three teams should feel pretty good about their spot in the standings.

That means the other two spots in the Eastern Conference should come down to the remaining four bubble teams.

At the moment Columbus is on the outside of that playoff picture, sitting one point behind the New York Islanders but the Blue Jackets have played two fewer games and hold the edge based on points percentage. If both teams continue on their current pace the Blue Jackets would jump ahead into one of those spots.

Right now Columbus is on track for 89 points, which puts them just barely ahead of the Hurricanes and Islanders in the playoff race. The table below looks at each of the four bubble teams, how many games they have remaining, their current pace, and the records they would need the rest of the way to reach 90 points (to beat Columbus’ current pace) and 95 points (which would make any team a near lock for the playoffs).

Based on their current pace and projections, the Devils are in a pretty good position. The wild card with them, however, is the fact they are still without Cory Schneider and they have been fading a bit down the stretch here.

The Hurricanes and Islanders are still the two teams with the most work ahead of them.

If you are wondering why I made the Islanders and Hurricanes the cut off and did not include the New York Rangers, just keep in mind the Rangers would need to go 15-8-1 the rest of the way to reach 90 points. They would need to do that while potentially selling off players at the deadline and after having gone 8-14-1 in their past 24 games. It is always possible that Henrik Lundqvist could play out of his mind down the stretch, but that seems like it is asking a lot.

Western Conference

Who should be comfortable: Vegas, Nashville, Winnipeg, Dallas

Who is on the bubble:  San Jose, St. Louis, Calgary, Minnesota, Anaheim, Colorado, Los Angeles.

Four of those seven will get in.

Who is probably out of it: Chicago, Edmonton, Vancouver, Arizona

Analysis: The Western Conference is a bit more wide open because there are two races taking place at the same time and that is keeping a lot of teams in it. Not only do you have a wild card spot up for grabs, but perhaps two spots in the Pacific Division as well.

At this point Vegas seems to be running away with the regular season Pacific Division crown thanks to the 10-point lead (with one game in hand) it has over the San Jose Sharks.

The other two spots in that division are up for grabs with only five points separating the second place San Jose Sharks and fourth place Los Angeles Kings.

Based on each team’s current point projection the cut-off to make the playoffs in the Western Conference is significantly higher than it is in the Eastern Conference with the final playoff teams on pace for close to 97 points at the moment.

Let’s take a look at those races.

Even though when you look at the standings today and see that the Anaheim Ducks are just one point back of a playoff spot, and ahead of the Colorado Avalanche and Los Angeles Kings in the standings, they still have the hardest road ahead of them given each team’s current pace and the fact everyone else still has games in hand on them. They would need to win 15 of their final 23 games to hit that 97-point pace to jump ahead of the Flames’ current pace in the Pacific Division.

Still, there is a razor thin margin of error for pretty much every team on that table.

Any of those four teams could grab the four spots that are still legitimately up for grabs.

The Blackhawks would need a 20-3-1 over their final 24 games to reach 97 points. So let us just say that them, and every team below them, is finished for this season.

Even though Dallas is tied with St. Louis with 72 points at the moment I did not include them on the bubble because they have played two fewer games. They have a top-10 points percentage in the NHL and are currently on pace for 101 points. It would take a pretty significant meltdown for them to fall out of the playoff picture.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Kovalchuk scores twice, Russians outclass US 4-0 at Olympics

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Ilya Kovalchuk scored two back-breaking goals as the Russians outplayed, outhit and outclassed the United States in a convincing 4-0 shutout Saturday night as each team wrapped up pool play at the Olympics.

With the loss, the United States is guaranteed to have to play in the qualification round Tuesday. U.S. goaltender Ryan Zapolski allowed four goals on 26 shots, including Kovalchuk’s goals less than 33 seconds apart at the end of the second period and start of the third.

Los Angeles Kings 2012 draft pick Nikolai Prokhorkin scored the Russians’ first two goals in a dominant performance.

As close as the shots on goal were, the U.S. rarely generated the quality scoring chances against Vasily Koshechkin the Russians did around Zapolski, who played all three preliminary-round games. Koshechkin stopped all 29 shots he faced for his first shutout of the tournament.

This night lacked the tense political subtext of the Cold War from their 1980 meeting and the pomp and circumstance of Russian president Vladimir Putin attending and the pressure on the home team in Sochi in 2014, but it had the same kind of in-arena atmosphere. U.S. and Russian fans filled Gangneung Hockey Centre and went back and forth with “U-S-A” and the “ROSS-I-YA” chants that made up the background noise at the Olympics four years ago.

There was at least one disagreement in the stands between those fans and plenty more on the ice. Pushing and shoving followed countless whistles, and at one point U.S. forward Jordan Greenway and Prokhorkin got tangled up and came as close to a fight as players can without dropping the gloves.

In a tournament full of mistakes, the U.S. made a couple to allow the Russians to take the lead 7:21 in. Alexander Barbanov had all the time in the world behind the net and dished the puck to KHL star Sergei Mozyakin, who found Prokhorkin free and clear in front for the deflection goal.

Ryan Donato had the Americans’ best chance of the first late in the period when he pinged a shot off the crossbar behind Koshechkin. The Russians hemmed the U.S. in its zone late in the period, and the fatigue took its toll as the game went on.

Left open on the rush as the U.S. was slow to backcheck, Prokhorkin scored his second goal 2:14 into the second, using a Jonathan Blum screen on Zapolski to make it 2-0. The U.S. spent the rest of the second period unable to convert on a delayed-penalty chance and a couple of power plays.

Things tilted even further when Sergei Andronov held the puck away from U.S. defender Bobby Sanguinetti and passed it to Kovalchuk, whose shot went under Zapolski’s arm and in with 0.2 seconds left in the second. As if that goal wasn’t deflating enough for the U.S., Slava Voynov sprung Kovalchuk for a semi-breakaway and the former Atlanta Thrashers and New Jersey Devils sniper beat Zapolski clean 32 seconds into the third for a 4-0 advantage.

NOTES: U.S. defenseman Will Borgen was a healthy scratch for the third consecutive game. Forward Jim Slater was also scratched. … David Leggio backed up Zapolski.

___

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

Olympic streak over as Canada loses to Czechs in shootout

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — The Czech Republic rallied twice to hand the Canadian men’s hockey team its first Olympic loss in eight years Saturday, riding goaltender Pavel Francouz to a 3-2 win in a shootout.

Canada had won 11 consecutive games at the Olympics – the first 10 with NHL players – dating to a loss to the United States in pool play in Vancouver in 2010. Canada opened these games with a comfortable 5-1 win over the Swiss that confirmed its status as one of the favorites in the tournament.

Still, Russia, the United States and now Canada have all lost in the preliminary round.

”The first 10 minutes I thought they had a little bit of an advantage but from that point on I thought we played hard,” Canada coach Willie Desjardins said. ”Lots of parts of our game were good. Now we just move ahead. This one’s gone, we don’t worry about it at all. We just move ahead to the next one.”

Mason Raymond and Rene Bourque scored first-period goals for Canada, but Dominik Kubalik and Michal Jordan answered for the Czechs, who used a successful forecheck. The Czechs tied it up 35 seconds into the second period: Ben Scrivens, who had mishandled the puck seconds earlier, stopped a Michal Birner shot but Jordan banged in the rebound.

”We had one (goal against) with a couple chances to clear it and a sharp-angle shot that I probably want to have (back),” said Scrivens. ”Another one where they break in, throw it in the middle and hope for bounces, and they get one.”

Canada outshot the Czechs 33-20 through overtime, but Francouz stood tall – particularly in the extra session.

The three-on-three overtime on the big ice was frantic entertainment with quality scoring chances. Canada’s Derek Roy made some nifty rushes but couldn’t finish it off, while Mat Robinson broke up a two-on-one before losing the puck on a breakaway.

Wojtek Wolski scored for Canada in the shootout while Maxim Lapierre, Roy and Bourque were all stopped by Francouz and Maxim Noreau hit the post on his attempt. Petr Koukal and Jan Kouvar scored for the Czechs.

”A penalty shot is 50-50,” said Czech forward Roman Cervenka. ”We were more lucky today.”

The three group winners and the best second-ranked team advance directly to the quarterfinals. The remaining eight play, with the four winners advancing to the quarters.

Canada will take on South Korea, a fledgling program that features a half-dozen Canadians, on Saturday while the Czechs face Switzerland. A Czech win in regulation will give them top spot in the group and a direct route to Wednesday’s quarterfinals. The Canadians would have to hope to be the best second-place team to join them there or else play a qualification playoff game Tuesday.

”We played hard,” said Desjardins. ”The time you worry is when you don’t play hard. Like if you give everything you’ve got, then what happens happens and you move on to the next game and you look for some adjustments and you come back ready.”

More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org

The Buzzer: Hot Islanders goalies, Jets take off

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

Players of the Night

  • Much like Jaroslav Halak with his 50-save shutout last night, Thomas Greiss stole the show – and a shutout – for the New York Islanders, stopping all 45 of the Hurricanes’ shots on Friday. He probably deserves the top spot; you can read about his performance here.
  • Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele helped the Jets dominate the Avalanche 6-1. Wheeler collected two goals and one assist, while Scheifele generated three assists. Since returning from an injury, Scheifele is on a three-game point streak, collecting two goals and five helpers. Wheeler continued to produce without Scheifele, but like peanut butter and chocolate, they’re even better together.

Note: if you go after them, you may have to answer to Dustin Byfuglien. That’d probably bad news for you.

Highlights of the Night

This was Patrik Laine‘s 16th power-play goal of 2017-18. Looks like his office covers a lot of ground/ice:

Sean Couturier continues to be a revelation as a top-line center for the Philadelphia Flyers, scoring the overtime-winner against the Blue Jackets:

Columbus carried a substantial shot advantage over Philly, but Sergei Bobrovsky made some great stops:

Factoids

Again, the Islanders’ shutouts are especially impressive because the defense has not been impressive.

Quite a start to Patrik Laine’s career.

Select company for John Klingberg.

Jay Bouwmeester: 1,100 games, countless surprised facial expressions.

Scores

Flyers 2, Blue Jackets 1 (OT)
Islanders 3, Hurricanes 0
Jets 6, Avalanche 1
Stars 2, Blues 1

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.